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Perry Anderson is Professor of History and Sociology at UCLA, focusing on modern Europe and intellectual history.

Irony and the gender of genres

Do literary forms have sexes? The question might seem extravagant. But a widespread conviction would answer, yes.

Take the case of one of the most suspect of tropes. Few rhetorical figures have a worse reputation than irony. With reason. In modern literature, Franco Moretti, the most incisive of our literary critics, has argued that irony is typically a mask of moral indecision and evasion – an attitude of facility that keeps open multiple possible meanings, the better to avoid the risks of any irreparable choice between them: conduct we reprove in daily life, and ought to view with vigilance in fiction. Here irony is identified with a passivity that spells abdication of the will.

A more commonly heard opinion takes the opposite view – one equally without indulgence, but politically more alert. Irony, here, is identified with a surplus of will. The ironist is seen as an aggressor, employing a rhetoric that invariably bespeaks a position – or pretension – of power. What more logical, then, than its asymmetrical distribution between the sexes?

Irony, it is generally agreed, is supremely masculine – women rarely appreciate it, and still more rarely practise it. They sense an inveterate impulse to domination beneath its surface suavity. Feminine intuition cannot be far wrong. Indeed, today enlightened men will readily agree with it. In literature, from the time of Aristophanes onwards, comedy has been notoriously conservative. Here, perhaps, lies the contaminated source of the venom of irony. But there is no cause for alarm. Nowadays, progressive readers are proof against it.

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